The Geographer

On August 1st, I will begin my new job as The Geographer at National Geographic.

My love of maps and atlases began when I was a child poring over hiking maps of the Adirondack Mountains with my father. I followed the paths up rivers and streams, I saw summits rising out of contour lines: Marcy, Algonquin, Haystack, and Skylight. Exploring the mountains was always along dual tracks, one with real mud and bugs and rocky ledges on the trail and the other with cartographic lines on paper.

Back then it was about knowing one place intimately and seeing it on the map. Geography, of course, is much more. It’s about connecting that place to the world and about the complexities of the natural and cultural landscapes: geology, ecology, archaeology, history, politics, and economics.

Thirty years ago I arrived in Washington fresh out of college to begin an internship at the National Geographic Society. I remember my excitement and relief when I found out that I was selected to participate in the geographic intern program started by Barry Bishop. Not only did I have something to do after graduation, it was at a place renowned for its support of geographic exploration and for its maps.

The internship began a career that brought me opportunities to pursue geography and cartography. In graduate school I studied the mix of indigenous and European mapping traditions. As a custom cartographer I mapped the grounds of the United States Naval Academy, I created a brochure for the Capital Crescent Bike Trail, and I illustrated an atlas of rock climbing locations.

I also participated in international border cases before world courts. For example, I worked with the legal team representing Equatorial Guinea in a maritime boundary dispute with Nigeria and Cameroon at the United Nations’ International Court of Justice. As a geographer, I helped the lawyers analyze the coastal morphology of the Gulf of Guinea and made maps depicting the states’ maritime limits. For the litigation between Sudan and South Sudan, I researched the history of colonial mapping, analyzed population data, and created maps to help determine the extent of the disputed Abyei region. The work on these and other cases has been a hands-on education in geopolitics and international boundaries.

Geography helps us interpret information in meaningful ways. I worked with the U.S. Census Bureau on the Census Atlas of the United States, the first since the nineteenth century, and with Sports Illustrated on the “Great American Sports Atlas.” I have created panoramic maps for National Parks, trail maps for National Forests, and a series of maps to illustrate Afghanistan for season two of the podcast Serial.

Throughout my 24 years in custom mapping, I have maintained close ties with National Geographic. I created illustrations for teaching map skills, still live on the NGS website. I made maps of Pakistan, Arlington Cemetery, and Mount Washington for National Geographic, among the best work I’ve done as a cartographer.

Portion of a map showing deaths on Mount Washington, New Hampshire

Recent developments in spatial technology have revolutionized geography in our lives. We have accurate GPS on our smartphones and powerful software to analyze data collected about the earth. Professional and amateur cartographers now contribute to open source mapping tools and shared geographic datasets.

In my new position as The Geographer at National Geographic, I will be working in the recently established Centers of Excellence with Chris Johns and Kaitlin Yarnall. I will be focusing on three important areas. First, I will be working with the Maps Policy Committee to monitor and evaluate geopolitical and other changes in the world. Establishing a consistent treatment of geographic information and its representation in maps are important parts of the legacy of quality mapping at National Geographic.

Second, I am excited to contribute my experience in mapping and geography to innovative education programs such as the Love Your Park campaign and the Geography Bee — though I know I will be no match for its participants! Geographic literacy is essential for the next generation to tackle the challenges facing our planet.

On the trail back from the 2016 Mountain Cartography Workshop at the Carl-von-Stahl-Haus in the Alps above Berchtesgaden, Germany. Photo by Karel Kriz.

Lastly, the Center of Excellence for Mapping is in its nascent form. I will be working with Chris, Kaitlin and others to develop the Center along the following themes: promoting best practices in cartography, curating quality geographic data, and advancing mapping techniques.

Exploring mountains led me to a passion for maps and geography and a career in cartography. I look forward to the opportunity to share my knowledge and skills at the Centers of Excellence, what better place than National Geographic to help others understand and care about our world.

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